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American Movie (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on March 17, 2012

I love documentaries, but this is one of a very small handful that I count among my all-time favorite films.  Mark Borchardt is a riveting individual.  He’s not an exceptional person, in fact he reminds me of some of the regular guys I grew up with in Chicago.  But his relentless drive to achieve his dreams with practically zero resources, his entertaining speech mannerisms and his character flaws make him an unforgettable screen presence.  Borchardt rails against conformist society and sees the world as gray and decaying, but his affection for his friends and his ambition and his humor make him endlessly endearing, even when he’s on an angry drunken rant.

But it’s not solely upon Mark’s shoulders to act as the heart of the film.  It’s also a wonderful experience to spend time with Mike Schank, his best friend.  A shy, soft-spoken, casual man with a nervous laugh, Schank’s ambitions (if he has any) are unknown, but his devotion to Borchardt is sweet, and his struggles with drugs, alcohol and gambling are quietly compelling.  And there’s Monica, Mark’s long-suffering mother.  Repeatedly dragged into Mark’s productions (you can tell this has been going on for years), she puts up with his crap with a cautious hope that somehow, against all odds, he will achieve his goals.  The most tragic of these characters is Mark’s reluctant financier, his uncle Bill.  Aged and frail, battling senility, and extremely bitter about the world and the people in it, few of whom he trusts.  One can imagine that if things don’t go the way Mark hopes they will, he’ll end up like Uncle Bill.  But it’s Bill who delivers the film’s final message, a plea for folks to be kind to each other and enjoy life.  It’s a beautifully touching moment, made all the more so by his efforts to articulate himself.

And of course, it’s a movie about making movies.  As someone who routinely criticizes the work of people far more talented and driven than myself, it’s a humbling experience.  Making any film, even a bad one (and Coven, for what it’s worth, is not a bad film), is a Herculean effort.  It requires a large dedicated staff and significant financial resources.  Mark gets by with a few semi-available friends, a pile of debt (“Kick-fuckin-ass, I got a Mastercard!  Life is pretty cool sometimes”) and a couple of menial, futureless jobs.  Some might say director Chris Smith is laughing at Mark, the way Waiting for Guffman laughs at its cast of inept players.  Not so.  This film applauds his ceaseless battle against countless setbacks.  Borchardt’s occasional slipups are amusing, but in the end he’s putting his heart and soul into something he believes in.  I feel a deep affection for him and his associates.

Docs don’t often have much rewatch value.  American Movie is worth repeat viewings, it’s a soulful and funny look at filmmaking, middle America, friendship, and passion.  Rating: Masterpiece


One Response to “American Movie (rewatch)”

  1. […] 13. American Movie (1999, Chris Smith) […]

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